Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 08/14/15 10:46 AM

Book review: Capital by Rana Dasgupta

Capital by Rana Dasgupta

The book pushes the reader directly into the life of a typical Delhi elite on his turf: huge farmhouse, ornate tiling, Italian marble work, chlorinated pool. Massage rooms, a post-massage chill-out room. A teppenyaki restaurant. Everything so pristine that another farmhouse down the road (same owner, of course) is used for frequently held wild parties.

Thus having set the mise- en- scene, Dasgupta never wavers from that path for a moment. The book is a verging on the dark, unsentimental account of the excesses that Delhi suffers from. Nothing new for those of us who have or have had more than a nodding acquaintance with India’s capital, but chilling to digest in cold print for all that.

Dasgupta begins and ends his book with talk of water in and around Delhi, water in the rivers, in aquifers of yore, groundwater, well water. All gone now, of course. Age-old seeps which have been ruthlessly throttled by marauding development.

This capital is a city of hierarchies and clannish allegiances where people pay cover charges of Rs 20,000 to enter nightclubs. Where you are the Gulfstream jet you own. Where traffic is not a stream that carries you with it but a jungle through which you hack. Where men from business families demonstrate their masculinity by buying haute handbags (go figure). Where money rules like it does not even in the `materialistic` West. Where urban violence is the norm. Where property men are buying up large tracts of land in Ethiopia, Ghana and Guinea for expanding their businesses. Where rich and of course, unhappy people seek gurus and find them everywhere, sometimes even gurus who head bathroom fittings companies.

Delhi’s fantasies are unabashedly feudal. Money, cars, champagne and hunting, the last still very much on, except that women are the prey de rigueur. Nihilism is passé, this is post- post- nihilism. Put simply, Delhi is where the wild things are. The elites get their high from doing things that no one else can do. And you don’t want to spend too much time thinking about that.

Dasgupta talks astutely of how women, unshackling themselves from the twin chains of homemaker and mother,have thrown the gauntlet in terms of the resentment that seethes in the male breast. He mentions the brief and brilliant flare of intelligence, creativity and promise that was all too soon smothered by the power-corruption nexus.

He goes to the northernmost tip of the city, to the hellhole of Bhalswa, where deprivation is given yet another new horrific spin. He mentions that the Nithari parents would run out of grief counselling sessions every time rumours of monetary compensation did the rounds. Delhi has always had its priorities right.

This is a dystopia which never really was an utopia; here, the rot has set in so deep, most people don’t register it, definitely not the mired-in-hardscrabble middle class. Much of what Dasgupta lays out in the book holds true for all of India, though here Delhi necessarily becomes the epicentre. The enduring image is of a bloated waterless city, a ruined megapolis. The few shining flames that burn in parts of the city are not mentioned; neither is any hope held out of any kind of redemption for Delhi or its denizens.

(One biggish error has crept in: Sanjay finds mention as Indira Gandhi’s elder son).

This outsider’s view of the capital at times, goes into straight-on monologue but still manages to hold the reader’s attention. By the time the book ends as it begins, with the city’s water problem (in recent times the most gripping conclusion to any work of non-fiction), the reader is ready to weep for all that Delhi was and could have been.

Dasgupta concludes by saying that Delhi’s story is the normal story of our age. I’m not too sure about that but if that is the truth, then woe betide us citizens of the world.

`Boys paddle gleefully in the water. Families of moorhens glide across its surface. Rowing boats are moored at the river’s edge, where you cans see two metres to the bottom. In the middle of the river is a belt of golden reeds; the opposite bank must be a couple of kilometers away. Bright blue kingfishers chirp shrilly in the trees, which lean desirously over the water. A woman collects river water in a plastic canister.`

Yes. This is the Yamuna upstream from the dam at Wazirabad, that Rana Dasgupta is describing.

CapitalNew DelhiRana Dasgupta

Sheila Kumar • August 14, 2015

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